It’s the last minute of extra time in Fulham’s FA Cup tie with Sheffield United. It all appears to be heading for sudden death, when The Blades win a corner. Fulham’s Clint Dempsey is taking a defensive position marking United’s Shaun Miller.
However, when the cross is headed back across the box by Harry Maguire, Dempsey runs away from his man, leaving him free to head the winner.
It’s a strange decision from the experienced American, and one that should sound alarm bells for Fulham manager Rene Meulensteen. Dempsey has either had a bad lapse of concentration, or been so unconcerned about the outcome of this game, that he has been reckless.
After the game, Meulensteen described his team as being at rock-bottom. And he is correct. If Clint Dempsey’s attitude is typical of the group, then there are forces at play within this team, that are not designed to serve the best interests of Fulham FC.
It wouldn’t be the first time that players have ‘under-performed’ to force the sacking of a manager. Experienced players know what they can get away with. And when divisive cliques hold sway, that negative influence can take on a life of it’s own.
Rene Meulensteen is an experienced football man. But he is not an experienced football manager. A six month tenure at Bronby. Two games at FC Anzhi in the Russian League. It’s not a glittering managerial CV. And right now he is being challenged by his players.
From the outside, it appears that they don’t fear or respect him as a manager. Otherwise, their attitude, commitment, decision-making, leadership would be far superior than what it is. They have forgotten their responsibilities to Fulham FC and their supporters, and agendas are holding sway.
Meulensteen’s has hired experience in Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley to support him. But if the players fundamentally don’t want to follow their leader, there is nothing the rest of the management team can do about it.
The only way for the Dutchman to turn things around, is to have a group of players who are on his wavelength. But that will take time. It may take a relegation for him to rebuild Fulham in his own image. But will he be given that time and space?
Or maybe Rene Meulensteen is another example of an excellent coach, who doesn’t have the skill set to be a leader and manager. His work is perhaps best done in the background, and thus any weaknesses can be compensated for by a strong leader.
Either way it’s crisis time at Craven Cottage. With a group of players who don’t appear to be pulling their weight. And a manager whose leadership credentials are being challenged. Frank, open and honest collective exchanges and dialogue are the only short-term way forward.
If Meulensteen negotiates his way out of this adversity, it will give him the foundation to build a managerial career on. But it won’t be easy. And he needs to critically recognise and resolve exactly why players like Clint Dempsey are making rash, impulsive decisions in key moments of matches!